Wednesday, August 9, 2017

The language of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a bittersweet tale of love, rich with 1950's & 1960's style and color. It is most recognized for its innovation: every line of dialogue is sung. While that is novel, and was certainly surprising in 1964 when it debuted, I think there's more behind its legacy. While so completely French, director Jacque Demy's vision is remembered and rewatched the world over. That's because it creates a new language melding film and music that transports the audience for a more direct emotionally moving experience.

One of the things about speaking in a new language is that you are released from your inhibitions. When I served as a missionary in Mexico for two years the first big challenge I had to overcome was, of course, speaking Spanish. I wasn't fluent and even after a solid two months of intensive language preparation, I still was only at a basic high school level. When I arrived in the country, however, I was paired with a native speaker that knew no English. And so with complete immersion (all I did all day was walk around and talk to people) I was soon dreaming in Spanish. That's when I found I began to speak more openly about emotions and feelings, both in what I shared and in what I asked about. It's a more direct, less complicated language and I had none of the social training that would've taught me to cringe at a curse word or shy away from direct expression.

Watching The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, a film where 100% of the lines are sung, was a similar language-learning experience. My impression of the singing style was awkward, at first. I don't know French so one issue is that I initially struggled trying to fit the English subtitles somewhere into the music. There's a learning curve that comes through the length of the film. What seemed strange at first and without melody, turned into a new dialect, of sorts, with an underlying bit of fantasy and a more direct emotional connection. As I succumbed to the constraints and rules of this mode of expression and stopped looking for the old musical language I knew, I began to really enjoy it.

The singing is sweet but the actors aren't virtuosos. There is none of the showboating of the big Hollywood musicals of the era. Demy reasoned that in traditional musicals you have starts and stops of the story with a cycle of exposition, dialogue, then song, then the story continues until it stops for another song, and so on. His goal was to create a musical atmosphere that flows continuously throughout the film's running time. While I still love the bombastic showtune-style of the greatest musicals like Singing In The Rain, Umbrellas uses music in a different way. It is the more direct influence of the recent hit La La Land, so if you liked that and want more or it didn't fully connect and you want to understand where it's coming from, watch this 50 year old predecessor that broke that ground first.

Umbrellas is fund of beautiful melodies and musical lines, but there is no delineation between separate songs. Instead it is one continuous musical experience. Demy and composer Michel LeGrand literally sat down at a piano with the screenplay and a blank sheet of music paper side by side and went through, page by page, adding notes to the written lines. In an interview, LeGrand admitted to struggling through the process. A key breakthrough came as a bit of inspiration when they translated the natural timbre of the spoken line for a scene, keeping the same rhythmic melody. That became the one truly memorable musical theme from the film, and the rest followed. The core meaning of the words and action are paired with the emotional message of the music. For me, the effect took root and started to swell as the story progressed. And yes, there is a story. It's about young love, loss, and the path that life leads. It's almost a "tale as old as time."

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Oscars Week: Manchester By The Sea

The reality is that death comes and we should all be expecting it. Except that it happens so rarely and so we become so far-removed from it. That's not true for everyone across the world, of course, and for Lee Chandler (played by Casey Affleck in an Oscar-nominated performance) it may seem to happen a bit more often. In Manchester By The Sea we watch this character face not only the death of his brother, resulting in his inheriting guardianship of his 17 year old nephew, but also a more intimate tragedy from years before. It is this earlier horror that really hangs over everything happening in the real-time of the film and which underlines Lee's grief. The film uses these situations to really examine the reality of death from the perspective of those left living.

And that's what Manchester By The Sea does so well. It takes a look at those moments around the death of loved ones that, when you imagine them happening to yourself, make you say, "I don't know what I'd do." This film sits in those periods of time seconds, hours, days, weeks, months, and years after the unimaginable happens. It's not a film with emotional grandstanding or heavy on the tears. Instead it is like a real-life guide of what to do when someone close to you dies. There's a list of things to take care of and Lee is too busy getting to the business of hospital paperwork, wills, and funeral arrangements to face the fact that a person that was there is now gone.

Because, at least according to this film, there are a lot of logistics and worldly affairs to take care of right after someone dies. Sure, we all know this, but who really knows the right thing to do in those moments? How do you negotiate funeral prices and make life choices with long-term impact in a state of arrested grief? Well those that have been through it know what they did and Manchester By The Sea seems to have been crafted by someone who has been through that and knows those struggles.

Kenneth Lonergan, who wrote and directed the picture, relieves the audience from having to face the overdone, melodramatic, and tedious scenes you expect but that, thankfully, never actually come. Don't get me wrong, there are some heart-wrenching scenes in this film. A lot of pain is communicated, but there's growth and understanding as well. Lee Chandler was a loving and happy husband and father before he went through what he did and the frustration of dealing with tragedy takes its toll, always bubbling below the calm yet hostile surface and manifesting itself with random angry punches.

Lucas Hedges plays Patrick, the surviving son of Lee's brother Jon, and received an Oscar nomination for the role. He delivers a take on how a millenial teenager might react to what is a not wholly unexpected death - his dad was known to have congenital heart disease and had been in the hospital several times before. I wondered if it was unrealistic how easily he seems to take the news and keep a sense of humor, but in time you see what he goes through.

The uncle-nephew relationship takes center stage as it explores a situation where there's love but also struggle. Kyle Chandler plays the father and has plenty of screen time in flashbacks which come and go quite easily to the point that they don't really feel like flashbacks at all. My one regret for this movie is that while Chandler does get dialogue, he's a bit more of an ancillary presence. Maybe that's because I remember him affectionately as Coach Eric Taylor from Friday Night Lights and here he plays a sort of version of that character with his matter-of-fact, let's-get-moving approach to adversity.

Rounding out the cast is a lovely Michelle Williams performance and I certainly wouldn't have minded to see more of her character's journey and relationship with Lee. A touching random encounter on the street near the end of the film underlines what Lee hasn't yet fully faced and why his improving relationship with his nephew Patrick benefits from mutual understanding. Death is a permanent part of life and it can't be forgotten.

Manchester By The Sea is currently available for rent or purchase through iTunes & Amazon.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Sing Street

John Carney drew a lot of attention when his small, very low-budget film Once made a splash at Sundance several years ago. It shot him to prominence, at least in the indie-film world and lead to his first bigger-budget movie, Begin Again, which brought with it some star power in Keira Knightly, Mark Ruffalo, and Adam Levine. Now in his third outing, Carney gets even better with the warm and fun film Sing Street. If you've ever wanted to bottle-up the essence of positive youthful possibility and fearlessness, mixed with mid-1980's music culture, then look no further.

Carney has made himself the resident expert of a certain subgenre of musical film using the possibility of music as a career to therapeutically tackle and trascend whatever difficult situations life throws at you. Music is sound-in-motion, and paired with the medium of film--or pictures-in-motion--has been an exciting combination since it was first conceived. Music videos, while becoming a distinct short-form art medium delivering pop culture at scale through MTV in the 80's, have always been a part of film since sound was incorporated in some way. While silent film had a different soundtrack every time it played depending on who your house organist was, that flexibility allowed it to be always changing. The moment sound was added to movies music came right along (The Jazz Singer, 1927). In fact, one of the most timeless movies of all time, Singin In The Rain, is about the story of sound and music in film. While true musicals are few and far between nowadays (La La Land just stole our hearts) music in film as both a storytelling tool and as a narrative subject has never been better.

Sing Street takes this to the limit with it's surprisingly moving storyline about a young man and woman in Ireland in the 80's. The economic crisis there is dire and families are suffering. Conor Lawlor, our protagonist, is forced to attend a lower-class school as his parents work through marital and financial troubles. What I love most about Conor is that even as a generally introverted character, he has bravado in the moments that count and through that he becomes an unexpected leader. When he sees a pretty girl on the stoop across from his new school he builds the courage to talk to her and then, in a moment of desperation, he lies that he has a band and that she'd be good in their new video. As he walks away after having successfully gotten her number he hastily whispers to his friend, "We need to form a band." He's good at making it up as he goes along in the fake it till you make it category.

The core of Conor's journey in the film is his relationships with the girl, Raphina, and his brother. In both of them he sees a level of experience and worldliness that he seeks after while both learn unexpected lessons from his less-cynical and free spirit. The relationship with his older brother, Brendan, is one of the sweetest and most encouraging parts of the movie. How Brendan chooses to assist Conor in freeing himself from the confines of their complicated home life is one of the greatly nuanced and mature aspects of the story. He helps Connor see his parents from a more adult point-of-view that both helps him appreciate their struggles and recognize their flaws. Brendan also tells him step by step what he needs to do if he's going to be successful in using music to get girls. He asks, "You want to have actual sexual intercourse, right?" Connor is confused, "Yeah. Wait, what?". "The girl, it's all about the girl, isn't it?" Brendan asks. Conor obviously hadn't quite fully considered his more innocent intentions. This is a pretty basic part of the older brother job description (and probably why I never had any luck in that area in high school, not having any brothers).

One of the continual joys of the film is the many ways creativity and song-writing become the choice Connor uses to deal with a situation. Whether he's anxious to impress a girl, angry at all the oppressive forces at school, stressed about his family situation, deliriously happy, or working through any other number of things, he uses music as a positive tool to process what he's feeling. And we benefit. Songwriting team Carney and Gary Clark channel the 80's feel but with a modern sensitivity that makes the original songs instantly lovable. After watching Sing Street I went right out and bought the soundtrack. While it includes several of the genuine 80's songs used throughout the movie from groups like Duran Duran and Motorhead, I skip over those and go straight for the originals. Carney prioritized casting actual musicians so the group of kids are more genuine in their performances. They sound great.

Within the film, the songwriting scenes are some of the most enjoyable to watch. There's the typical "get the band together" sequence where Conor and his new friend Mark round up all the musicians they know to create a ragtag group. Mark is the resident "real" musician and seems to know how to play every instrument under the sun. He becomes Conor's song-writing partner. By the end of the film you get excited every time Conor shows up at Mark's door to write a song. In a similar fashion to the scene in Begin Again where Mark Ruffalo's character envisions a full band accompanying Keira Knightley's solo acoustic performance, we'll see a time lapse of the writing of a song as you hear it with new band members joining in at key points as it develops. And combining Carney's own loves for both film and music, the music video sequences are especially joyful and hilariously cheesy.

While I've heard others disparage the ending of Sing Street, I don't know what they see. Without giving it away, the very final scenes, accompanied by a great song sung by Adam Levine (and co-written by Levin, Carney, and Once's Glen Hansard), it captures symbolically the hope and uncertainty of youth and someone determined to give his dream a chance when the odds are slim. It is the emotional climax, well-earned from the depth of relationships and struggle that Conor experiences throughout the film's story centered on both romantic and brotherly love.

Streaming now on Netflix